David Smooke

@DavidSmooke

To Be a Product Manager on a Rocket Ship

Pusher Interview

Disclosure: Pusher, which provide real-time APIs for developers, has previously sponsored Hacker Noon.

Today we’re going to catch up with the Pusher Product Manager, Jordan Harp to discuss the nature of real-time infrastructure, Pusher’s progress, and a little bit about how tech companies should and should not get political.

David: Let’s start with some numbers. What type/scale/volume of usage is Pusher currently powering? And where is Pusher seeing increased month over month usage?

Jordan: Each month Pusher sends more than 180 billion messages to more than 6.5 billion connected devices with 99.98% uptime. Over 200,000 developer customers across 170 countries are using our stack and we support 30+ libraries and almost all programming languages.

With Pusher’s communications and collaboration APIs, developers can easily build features into their web and mobile apps like live news (think breaking, live-reported news or something like reddit live), social news (think live comments), audience participation (voting, commenting etc.), live sport scores and events, collaboration (like Google Docs), live data visualization (graphs and stocks), in-app notifications, activity streams, team communication (like Slack), games and much more.

How/when/why did you join Pusher?

In 2016, I moved from Boston to London to join Pusher as a product manager. We used to say that Pusher is the best startup you haven’t heard of, I’d say we’re doing a better job of spreading the word now.

But at the time, I was impressed that such a small team built a product that was powering all these amazing apps and reaching profitability with only a seed round of funding. Compared to the echo chamber of VC funding hype in Silicon Valley, this approach to building a tech startup seemed like the industry’s “adults in the room.”

I wanted to join a developer tool SaaS company because I was looking around at the unicorns like Twilio and Stripe, and seeing this opportunity to build a foundational piece of the whole tech ecosystem. As a product manager without a CS background, I’ve worked to improve my technical expertise over time, and building products for developers felt like the ultimate challenge in this regard.

Finally, I thought I would learn a lot if I joined a fast growing company right around the 25 person mark. I’ve just hit my second year anniversary and I’ve already been at Pusher longer than 77% of the folks in the company. They all make Pusher what it is, and I can’t imagine this place without them! Figuring out how to evolve as a company through this growth is both difficult and fun.

What defines the long term vision of Pusher’s product?

We’re proud of the scalable, reliable and secure websocket platform that powers realtime updates for great companies like Lyft, MailChimp, and the The New York Times. But this is the year that Pusher will be known for more than just that.

We’ve been releasing betas of new products over the last year, and we’ve learned a lot about what developers in our realtime communication and collaboration ecosystem need.

In 2018, my hope is for products like Chatkit and Push Notifications to break through commercially, and we’re still learning a ton from beta APIs like TextSync and Feeds.

Our aim is to build tools that make developers happy. We know there are always other solutions you could pick (I know of quite a few realtime, chat, and push notifications products on the market), but we believe that when you go the extra mile to delight developers, they’ll choose your APIs for their projects and advocate for your tools in their companies.

Could you share a bit about how Pusher is internally using Pusher?

We were using Bold, a lightweight internal blogging tool, to write team updates and other blog posts for knowledge sharing until it shut down. Although we’re begrudgingly using Confluence for our internal wiki, it’s not right for what we need for internal blog.

Our Founder and CEO, Max Williams, is a developer and a prolific writer. He puts an emphasis on effective communication habits into everything he does running the company. When Bold shut down, he decided to build the internal blogging tool called Soapbox that would have the features needed to nurture the communications norms that we practice.

I honestly don’t know when he had time to do it. Kind of amazing, really. But of course Soapbox uses Pusher.

You can see how many people are viewing your post and who likes it, both in realtime.

There are certainly a backlog of features and bugs for Soapbox, but having your CEO rolling up his sleeves to build an app for the team is really emblematic of our culture here, where we optimize for learning.

Mobile Push Notifications were one of your bigger hits. It was “a unified API for developers to programmatically send push notifications to iOS and Android devices. Led to a record signup month with 54% more signups over the previous month and upvoted to #1 in tech on Product Hunt on release day.” Could you update us on how these offerings evolved? Who’s using it? And looking back, what did you learn from leading this project?

We had so much interest in this, but it was released as a feature rather than a standalone product. It gave us a user base of 4k developers to speak with about what problems they would like us to solve with a tailored product.

In December, we released new standalone APIs and SDKs for sending push notifications were built for developer delight: a hosted service to handle APNs/FCM complexity, scalable fast delivery, Pub/sub interests, and very soon, open and delivery rate tracking.

When used as a transactional alerts about in-app activity, push notifications are a core utility of modern apps. But too many apps use a scorched earth promotional style with the many mobile marketing CRMs out there. We want to empower developers with the tools they need to build great notifications services for their users.

We’ve got an exciting roadmap for Push Notifications and I’m looking forward to taking the beta tag off the product and offering our premium paid version of the service very soon.

What does “real-time” mean? I don’t mean to be the laymen, but I do see this term get thrown around a lot. Technically, all information takes time to move. So, what defines real-time?

When you’re dealing with a server publishing to many clients around the world, latency is impacted by many variables beyond our control.

For what we can control, which is the time between receiving a request and publishing it to a client, we average 150ms latency.

But you’re right that it’s thrown around a lot as a term and can feel too general in a conversation. I personally like to say that we’re “killing the refresh button.” Even my grandparents can understand that.

When has a customer surprised you with how they are using a feature you built?

When I first started at Pusher, I went on the hunt to speak with customers and learn how they use our tools in their own words. Printful were one of my favourites and I wrote about it back then.

They do fulfillment for people selling their printed designs on the internet, hooking into popular tools for hosting an online store like Shopify to receive an order, print it, and deliver it.

They use Pusher in their marketing, where they update orders fulfilled in realtime. This led to an actual boost in signups compared to the simulated animation they looped before.

They also use Pusher in the customer’s design journey, updating on file upload status to make the user experience seamless

Finally, they use Pusher internally to triage orders for fulfillment so that no two people are working on the same order at once.

I love the creativity by their developers to implement realtime into their core offering from end-to-end.

I found this on the interwebs:

Could you walk us through the daily grind? What tasks do you focus on? What apps do you use? How many meetings do you have? How do you optimize your day to day?

Aha! Yes that was on #BlueMonday, when our operations team surprised us all with a ball pit in the office.

It feels like no two days are alike as a product manager. With all the advice out there about how to be a great product leader, it can feel daunting to try to master it all and practise each discipline daily.

We try to be lowercase ‘a’ agile at Pusher. Each team has its own process for sprint-like iterations. On the Push Notifications team, we started with a small team so we just used a physical whiteboard for our iteration task planning and work in progress.

Wheeling it in and out of our planning meeting every two weeks is kind of funny, but physically writing the cards guarantees that we’ll discuss what the work actually entails rather than let it grow into an endless digital wasteland of cards we’ll never finish. We still have a Trello board for longer term planning, of course.

I’m a huge Dropbox Paper fanboy. It’s a lightweight writing tool, it’s elegantly designed, and it’s optimised for writing which will never be printed.

I feel most comfortable articulating my ideas in writing. But Slack can be a trap for this, since it can easily be lost. With Paper, I write to educate the team but also to persuade them as project stakeholders.

Writing to persuade forces me to answer the holes in my argument before wasting someone else’s time asking for feedback on something that isn’t properly backed up with qualitative and quantitative research.

I also get to work with great product people at Pusher who have strengths that I try to emulate and work into my own projects. Product management is a team sport.

I see one of your common customer use cases is for Tradings Platforms. On Hacker Noon, we publish a lot about cryptocurrency. Are you seeing any innovative uses of Pusher to build crypto related products?

We are seeing a lot of usage for companies that use us for live news, and lately we have seen big interest in cryptocurrency trading platforms using our technology to power live graphs and tables.

As we are powering six major trading platforms, we recently reached a daily record of 40 billion messages exchanged during the Christmas holidays due to the of the volume of information these large cryptocurrency trading companies process.

What do you think makes a good product manager?

Facilitating a process for the best ideas to happen, rather than trying to decide everything yourself.

I am 100% sure I won’t miraculously arrive at the best answer on the first try. But as a product manager, you get to work with so many smart people, and your job is to put them in a position to contribute their best ideas. The mix of those ideas is where the magic happens; it’s like making jazz.

What does this mean in practise? Engaging with customers, listening closely to their pain points, analyzing usage data and market trends, collaborating with stakeholders from leadership to the most junior team members, using the product yourself, and being willing to change your mind.

At the same time, you need to be confident in your approach because a team will feed off of that and support the success of the product. I deal with everyone in the company as well as our customers. Communicating with them and having empathy for their perspective is crucial to gaining their trust.

I also think we need to acknowledge that imposter syndrome is real for product managers, like any job. You will make mistakes, you will learn, you will develop skills in ways you didn’t expect.

No one starts out as the good product manager from Ben Horowitz’s famous “Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager” essay on day one. That’s ok, I believe we need to encourage more people — with and without CS backgrounds — to find their way to product management, because it’s a rewarding and fun job! Aspiring product managers: if you doubt yourself, I want you to know that we all have before, too.

Developers don’t tolerate bullshit like many other professions. What have you learned about marketing and serving developers over your last couple years at Pusher?

At Pusher, we aim to be generous. We write a ton of tutorials to show developers how to build cool stuff. In fact, we just took our best tutorials to launch a new searchable Tutorials hub that I recommend checking out.

I always have a sneaking suspicion that developers like marketing more than they’ll admit. Our swag is pretty popular around London and at conferences, where you’ll see our “What the Hack” t-shirts prominently.

Beyond t-shirts and stickers, it’s crucial for us to look at marketing as a scalable system, just like any other part of the business. Patrick McKenzie is one of my favorite Twitter people, and he sums this up brilliantly:

I see you’re based in London. What are the best and worst things about the London startup scene?

Well for starters, my favourite thing about being in London has nothing to do with tech. It’s everything else. The energy of this city is addictive, and I love the balance I can get in my life doing things that aren’t tech-related.

I didn’t grow up in a city, so being close to art is new to me. Living in London there are always too many interesting exhibitions to catch them all. You can narrow your interest to a specific genre and still not run out of things to see. Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” at the Barbican was so moving I went twice. Same for their recent Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition. Art helps me consider new ideas in different ways, which is what we do every day in tech companies.

London has a global focus, since it’s full of people from just about everywhere. The tech companies here solve global problems. A few of my favourites are What3Words — who are tackling addressing the world programmatically for billions of people without a street address, Memrise — a language learning app I am currently using to learn French that filmed real people candidly in clips they shot on a Euro bus tour, and TransferWise — who make peer-to-peer currency change to make it easy and cheap to send money home (how I pay my student loan bill).

I saw that you volunteered for Obama in 2008. I made the Obama door to door campaign my summer job in 2008. Now, a lot of time has passed and you’re working at a growing tech company. Tech is inherently agnostic, but people aren’t. You also worked at Facebook, helping politicians maximize the platform for their campaigns. Could you share some examples of how you see tech and politics working well together? And how should tech companies be or not be politically active?

Politics led me to tech. The first day I arrived in an Obama campaign office when I was 17, they set me up with voter file access on VAN (where I would eventually get my first PM role 6 years later), and had me create a Facebook profile to recruit my friends. I was a MySpace holdout at the time.

I’m politically progressive. More than half of my work over the last 10 years involved Democratic politics and tech in some combination. I say what I think because it’s part of who I am.

When you make tech products, there are inherent political questions. For instance: the ethics of the software that you build, who benefits from it and who doesn’t. Tech companies cannot avoid politics, because there is politics in everything.

In our industry, I advocate for diversity and inclusion when appropriate — such as this thread. Though I think as a white man who benefits from privilege, listening to the experiences of women, people of color, people of different abilities, and LGBTQ people is more important to being a good ally than speaking.

What’s the simplest way to give Pusher a test drive?

Short and sweet:

  1. Go to https://pusher.com/developers
  2. Copy the curl command
  3. Open your terminal, paste it, and hit enter
  4. Watch for the browser change colours in realtime

Magic!

Follow @jordan_harp on Twitter. Make sure to sign up for our new Beta products dashboard to take them for a spin, and tell Jordan what you think!

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